Kenneth Barton photo
Catherine Miller uses a white cane as a tool to create art. 
Kenneth Barton photo

Catherine Miller uses a white cane as a tool to create art. 

As the first and only legally blind painter to graduate from Pacific Northwest College of Arts, Catherine Miller isn’t one who worries about working within the confines of mainstream culture. She’s not nervous to speak up about what she sees as a serious disconnect between disability and contemporary art. 

To explore this phenomenon, Miller is creating “A Somewhat Secret Place: Disability and Art,” an exhibit that will run through July, featuring the work of artists and writers with and without disabilities who seek to represent or reference disability in their work.

“In the fine art world, they don’t have terms to talk about disability art,” said Miller, a member of St. Patrick Church in Portland. 

Miller is currently fundraising for the project through the Kickstarter website while simultaneously holding a call for submissions from Oregon artists, performers and writers. More than 20 artists will be represented in a variety of media: drawing, photography, installation pieces, performance art, painting and literature.

“Historically, little consideration has been given to the merit of art by people with disabilities despite the fact that disability is a common variant of the human form,” Miller said.

By carefully curating the exhibit, Miller hopes to give all of the work equal treatment in an effort to highlight the contributions of disabled artists and the prevalence of disability in art.

Since she was a student at PNCA, Miller has been exploring what she calls the “ocular-centricity” of the art world. She cites as an example Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s annual Time-Based Art Festival. Many of the performances are held in the long-shuttered Washington High School in Southeast Portland. That building, Miller said, doesn’t even come close to being ADA accessible.

“A lot of art patrons tend to be older people who have decided to dedicate this portion of their lives to enjoying the arts or having a new career in the arts or philanthropy,” Miller said. “Seeing these patrons trying to get into a gallery or squinting at gallery labels in 8-point fonts — it just doesn’t make sense.”

Not only will accessibility be a primary concern during this summer’s exhibit, it will become a conceptual element of the exhibition. American Sign Language interpreters will translate at all events related to the exhibit, and the gallery pieces will hang at eye-level for viewers seated in wheelchairs. All gallery labels will be printed in an 18-point font, as well as in Braille. Interactive art objects will allow folks to experience the exhibit tactilely. All photography will come with audio descriptions.

After growing up in North Portland with two parents who were dealing with their own disabilities, Miller was finally encouraged to start expressing herself through art as a child. She landed an Anna B. Crocker Scholarship, and started taking classes at PNCA when she was just 11. She graduated with a BFA in 2008, and has since been working in Portland’s art scene. She worked as an assistant to Kathy Coleman, artistic director of the Disability Art and Culture Project to promote and launch the 2010 Disability Pride and Art Culture Festival.

A family friend for more than a decade, Pam McFarlin said Miller has always been one to encourage people to look more closely at who they are, what values they hold, how they fit into the world and what they can contribute.

“This latest project will be no exception,” McFarlin said. “The interface of art and the perceived disability of the artist will spark a conversation that will continue for many years.”

A hanging party will be held June 30, as a VIP event for Kickstarter donors. Opening day is slated for Saturday, July 2. Miller has not yet chosen a venue for the exhibit. Other events are scheduled for the exhibit’s month-long run.


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